The thriller “Red” hopes to redefine how old you can be to be considered an action hero. The movie stars Bruce Willis, John Malkovich, and Oscar winners Helen Mirren and Morgan Freeman as former CIA operatives who come out of retirement to defend themselves from government assassins. The four ex-spies have become targets because of the dangerous secrets that they know.
Leading the group of assassins is William Cooper (played by Karl Urban), a high-tech CIA hit man who has the task of personally killing Frank Moses (played by Willis). Mary-Louise Parker also stars in “Red” as Sarah Ross, Frank’s civilian love interest. Here is what Willis and Urban had to say when they sat down together for a “Red” press conference in New York City.
What are your thoughts on aging?
Willis: Aging is what we’re all doing right now. Right now, it’s happening, during the course of this press conference, in seconds, minutes, hours, and days; it’s all going right by. So there’s only one thing to do really, and that’s just start living it up right now, which is what Karl and I did on “Red.” We had fun every day. I think everybody had fun every day. Karl, your thoughts?
Urban: [He says jokingly] As the youngest member of the cast, I have no idea what he’s talking about.
Bruce, your “Red” co-star Helen Mirren says she has a crush on you. What do you think about that?
Willis: Just getting my legs under me. I’m trying to think of the right thing to say. I’m happily married, and I couldn’t be more thrilled that Helen has a crush on me. I’m rather fond of her as well. And her husband, [filmmaker] Taylor [Hackford].
Why did you choose this role in “Red”?
Willis: Well, I didn’t know that it was going to be as much fun as it turned out to be, or that it was going to get the kind of notices that it seems to be getting. I have a pretty scientific way of choosing roles. And I labor over it and labor over it, and I ask people. I used to talk to the band, I was in a band and I used to talk to those guys, and I used to ask my kids, and none of that seemed to work.
And then what I just did was hang a pumpkin in the room and take a baseball bat and turn off all the lights. And I’d swing that bat, and if I hit the bat smack-dab in the middle of the pumpkin I would do the film. And that’s how I ended up picking “Red.” It’s just a 50/50 chance. What a stupid story that was, isn’t it? It’s possibly jet lag right now.
I don’t know. I wish I could take some credit for being right or for the film turning out great when it does. I think this film is primarily what it is because of great direction and the great cast we got in a really miraculous kind of way.
Urban: My process for decided to do this film wasn’t as scientific as Bruce’s. I threw dice.
Who kept you on your toes while filming “Red”?
Willis: I got my ass kicked in that fight scene.
Urban: That’s funny, because I got my ass kicked in that scene. I’m serious. I was in six weeks of physio after that fight scene. I’ve got the bill for you.
Can you talk about balancing comedy, romance and action in “Red”?
Willis: This film has three of those big elements: comedy, action and romance. What I’ve been saying and what I think we were all saying when we were working together is that you could have made a movie about any of those things — just made it about action and made an action movie or just made it a romantic movie with things that occasionally blow up. And to mix comedy in there also it was very ambitious, I think.
And we didn’t know when we were making it whether it was all going to stay in and all going to be in the film. So I think what they should do if this film turns out to be the big smash hit that everybody hopes that it’s going to be, that they should just make movies like this and get a great cast with great actors and great writing and a great director. And Karl Urban. I want Karl in every movie.
Urban: I can reiterate everything that Bruce said. I think that it comes down to I was very fortunate that we had a really wonderful script, a truly insightful and specific director. And at the end of the day, I had the luxury of the most phenomenal cast that I think I’ve ever worked with. For me, it was a point of getting to work with actors whose work that I had admired for such a long time.
The wonderful thing was to find yourself in that situation. When you approach that you’re never quite sure if they’re going to be able to live up to your expectations, but right across the board, my expectations were completely exceeded about how wonderfully supportive and generous they all were. I’m just really looking forward to this film getting out there and finding an audience, because it’s a really fun ride.
Willis: I think, too, that it bears saying that Karl really had one of the hardest jobs in the film because while just about everybody else was given reign to try to make you laugh and be in a little romance element of it all, that Karl’s job was to be the real truth, the real hard truth of the guy who brings death and the guy who was going to try and stop all these things.
And a lot of times that can be a very unforgiving part and less fun than when you’re getting to run around and go blow things up and go act like you’re someone else and go try to trick someone and do other things … I think [Karl Urban] did a great job and made us all look better by how tough [he] was in the film.
What was it like for you two do your big fight scene together?
Willis: We rehearsed a lot. I think that we both rehearsed knowing that once the cameras got out in that little room and once everybody was there and we’re saying, “OK, here we go and now we’re going to really crash into something and crash into each other.” It’s hard to underplay it because you just want to make it look like we’re really fighting. And you can get hurt.
Urban: I feel very blessed, having this fight with Bruce. He’s obviously been doing it for a while, and he taught me a few things that I didn’t know. For example, if it’s not done correctly, you can get hurt. So he taught me it’s always very important to maintain eye contact as much as possible so the other person knows what’s coming when. It was no-holds-barred … It was a pretty intense, gritty kind of a fight. I’m really proud of it I think it stands up to some of the best fights that have been put on screen, personally.
Bruce, can you talk about working with your “Red” co-star Morgan Freeman?
Willis: Yeah, we are friends. We’ve done a few films together now and it’s always great to see him. He is just a rock-solid guy. You just know he’s going to do something interesting and bring something interesting to it. He makes me laugh. I’ve been a fan of his for a long time, and I got to work with him three times. So great. And I do have a crush on him.
Bruce, in your long career as an actor, what’s gotten easier or harder for you?
Willis: Well, I get to do a lot of kinds of movies. I get to do smaller movies and mid-sized movies and big films like this. I think primarily a lot of them do have fighting and some elements of action in it. And what I like about it is we’re certainly not making anything new or doing anything new when the good guys win over the bad guys. That’s been going on since they’ve had movies. And I like the fact that I’m in that game and in that side of it, and I just like trying again.
And if you’re in any film where it gets a little notice, especially if it has action in it, it’s difficult to try and overcome that and try and do something or blow something up the same way or blow something up in a different way. What I like about “Red” is that there are so many things all in the same film. And when you’re trying to do it all at the same time, as I said earlier, it seems like I don’t know how this all going to stay in the same 90-minute package, but it certainly has. I’m really lucky to continue to be asked back.
Bruce, Sylvester Stallone said you gave him the idea of having him, you and Arnold Schwarzenegger in the same scene for “The Expendables.” What surprised you the most when you did that scene?
Willis: We were just talking about what we could do or what we should do. And I got into that film by just giving Sly a hard time and saying, “Why can’t I be in the film? Why didn’t you call me up? Why didn’t you ask me to do it?” And we were just talking on the phone. And I’m pretty sure he mentioned having the governor [Arnold Schwarzenegger] in the film, but if he’s going to give me credit then, yes, it was my idea.
I think that he did all the hard work on that film. That was a big, long, hard job to do and he made everybody look great in that film. There’s a DVD of how they made it and you can see how it gets hurt and how he gets beat up, and now what I talk to him about is he always says, “This is what you have in store for you. Some day you’re not going to bounce so high off the ground,” and I think it actually started in this film. This fight scene, I hope they put the long, real fight scene in the film [“Red”], which is about a four-minute fight scene. There’s about a two-minute fight scene in this film.
Did you get hurt in any of the fight scenes?
Willis: Just for one thing. There was a plant, and I kept getting dirt in my eyes, and I would have to stop, and I was crying. I started crying. So that’s not in there.
In “Cop Out” and “Red,” you seem to be the straight man for a co-star or co-stars who have more comedic roles. Is being a straight man something you feel more comfortable with than being the funniest person in a film?
Willis: I kind of get to do both things at different times. I only think about it when I get asked questions like that that maybe I should do it more, maybe I should do it less. The person that has to be funny can only be as funny as the person setting him up, so it’s a math problem.
If you take out this part of it, it’s a very bad analogy for it, but I think it’s an algebra problem. If you take this part out then one part of it doesn’t work any more. Zero sim. But yeah, I get to be funny, and I like setting people up, too.
How familiar were you with the graphic novel “Red” before you heard about the movie?
Urban: I hadn’t actually read the graphic novel of “Red” until after I had met the director [Robert Schwentke] and read the script, and then I had to look at the source material. And the comic itself is really an opening act. It’s a very short, sharp, gritty, violent comic. And I think the Hoeber brothers [Jon and Erich Hoeber, who co-wrote the “Red” screenplay] did a fantastic job of extending this concept and building upon it and making a really funny film. Yeah, it’s got the action in it, but full credit to them for taking it so much further.
Willis: I was less than familiar with the graphic novel until I started talking to Lorenzo about it — Lorenzo di Bonaventura, who produced the film. What I like about graphic novels is that they already have a sense of melodrama do them. And while this graphic novel I think was only 65, 67 pages, it’s a great starting point, and it kind of informs you of what you can get away with and what you can’t. And I think that Warren [Ellis, who co-created the “Red” graphic novel] was really good to allow us to add the other elements into it and try and flesh out the 67 pages from his book and really take it from one genre into another one. And I guess it turned out all right.
What’s next for you?
Urban: I’m about six weeks away from commencing shooting on “Dredd” in South Africa.
Willis: I actually just got home from some work that I did with Summit [Entertainment] on a film called “The Cold Light of Day” for about three weeks in Spain. So I don’t know when it comes out. I’m going to do a science-fiction film in January  called “Looper.”
Do you think there’s a political theme in “Red”?
Willis: I would vote no. I would say not really. I’m personally not a fan of politically themed movies. I think you can just turn the television on and get as much of that as you need, and then go out and see a movie and be entertained. I think that’s what we’re trying to do, is just to make you laugh. I don’t know if there is any real political content in it.
What about ageism?
Willis: Oh, ageism, there you go. Ageism is very subtle in this world and because people are staying alive longer and staying sharp longer and you can do you job much farther past 65, there’s a disconnect between that you have to stop working, you have to retire, even when you’re not prepared to retire. So there’s that theme in this film.
Urban: For me, it was rather interesting, in the process of researching for this film, we had the great benefit of speaking with Robert Baer, ex-CIA officer. And he pretty clearly documented the different between the CIA of today, which my character represents, and the CIA of yesteryear, which Bruce’s character represents. In the old days they seemed to rely a lot more on human intelligence. They would go out and recruit agents and that’s the way that they would get their information.
As opposed to today, where there seems to be more of a reliance on technology and satellites and all this sort of stuff. I think that’s one of the ways that that theme is represented in this film in this sort of new generation versus old generation. And you certainly get to see in the film which is the more effective of the two.
Since ageing and retirement is a recurring theme in “Red,” have you thought about when you might retire from acting?
Willis: I’ve never really thought about it as work. I still don’t look at what I do as work. There are a lot of people that do work hard and have really difficult jobs, and whether it’s digging holes in the ground or carrying cinderblocks up a hundred-foot ladder up to a roof, that is something that feels like work to me.
I think defending your country and being prepared to sacrifice your life for something is a really difficult job. I think actors catch a break, because it’s a real novel thing to be able to see someone like Eli Wallach still work in films and still show up. And I’m still as fascinated by him as I was when I watched him 40 years ago.
Ernest Borgnine, let’s talk about him, because we both worked with Ernest Borgnine, which was a blast. [He’s] incredible and sharp. Thank God we didn’t have any fight scenes with him.
Urban: [He laughs.] He would’ve kicked both of our asses!
Willis: Both of our asses right and go, “All right, who’s next?” He really is unbelievable. He’s awesome, isn’t he? I was so excited to work with him.
And he’s very sharp for someone who’s 93 years old, right?
Willis: I’ll take 93 [years old] right now; 93 is great.
Have you heard how he likes to keep in active and in shape?
Willis: I’ve heard stories about it, but I don’t know if I can share it. But he is awesome. He’s just awesome!
Bruce, do you know how to fight in real life?
Willis: [He says jokingly] What’s your problem? [He says seriously] I think I know how to fight. I like to think that if I had to, I could take you out right now. Well, it would be one of these chairs. No, I’d use a weapon. That’s a good question. I don’t get asked that very often.
Have you ever gotten into a real fight?
Willis: Yes, I have. I’m two for three.
Urban: I think that’s one of the more interesting aspects of what we do as actors for each job. We get to learn new skills. And you know, collectively I think we have a deadly skill set that we can never use in real life, despite the virtue of the fact that what you get taught from film to film — and this film was certainly no exception. We were trained with Buster Reeves, who’s an ex-MMA [mixed-martial arts] fighter. Stuart Wilson [one of the stunt men in “Red”]. And for me personally, it was a really fun idea to show me what the end game was. So that consisted of …
Yeah, laugh it up, because I don’t think they put [Bruce Willis through this process. For me, they had me for about half an hour, and they were showing me all these different choke holds that would effectively knock you out. So I was like [he makes a strangling noise], “Good, OK, got it!”
They’d take me to the point, just to give me an understanding of (a) what it felt like and (b) what I was trying to do to this man. And then they proceeded to roll around on the floor like monkeys for an hour while they choked each other out. So yeah, to answer your question, that’s one of the fun things about what we do.
Bruce, what can you say about your movie “Kane & Lynch” with Jamie Foxx?
Willis: It’s still a great script. Still working on it, I think, would be my answer. Not me, but everybody that is continuing to work on it is continuing to work on it right now. Great script, though. Great story.
For more info: “Red” website
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Interview with Bruce Willis for “Cop Out”
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“Red” Comic-Con panel
“Red” Comic-Con press conference
Interview with Morgan Freeman for “Red”
Interview with Helen Mirren for “Red”
Interview with Mary-Louise Parker for “Red”
Interview with John Malkovich for “Red”
Interview with Ernest Borgnine for “Red”